Warns further arms may be withheld if major Rafah op starts

Blinken urges Israel to lay out postwar plan so ‘Hamas can’t govern Gaza again’

Israel has ‘means and will’ to investigate violations of international law, says top US diplomat, defending inconclusive State Dept. report

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to NBC's 'Meet the Press,' May 12, 2024. (Screen capture: X/NBC, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to NBC's 'Meet the Press,' May 12, 2024. (Screen capture: X/NBC, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the White House had not seen an Israeli plan for the Gaza Strip’s post-war governance, nor had Jerusalem presented Washington with a credible plan to evacuate civilians Rafah ahead of a military operation there.

In a series of interviews with major US networks, Blinken said that absent a post-war plan for Gaza, Israel would have to either stay in the Strip indefinitely and face an “enduring insurgency” from thousands of remaining Hamas gunmen, or withdraw — “as we believe they need to do” — and be left with “a vacuum that’s likely to be filled by chaos, anarchy, and ultimately by Hamas again.”

Netanyahu and his government have long faced criticism over their refusal to make a plan for the management of the Strip after the war, and the prime minister has refused to hold substantive cabinet discussions on the matter due to concerns they could collapse his coalition.

Netanyahu has rejected efforts to include the Palestinian Authority in postwar planning, arguing that the more moderate foil to Hamas, which publicly backs a two-state solution, is no different from the Gaza-ruling terror group in that it too refuses to accept Israel’s existence and promotes hatred of the Jewish state.

And without a “credible plan” to evacuate Rafah, Blinken said, the “initial success” Israel might have from operating in the Strip’s southernmost city would not be worth it given the “high cost to civilians.” Undertaking a large-scale operation in the city without first evacuating its civilian population would pose a “red line” for US President Joe Biden, Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Biden had on Friday confirmed for the first time his decision to withhold thousands of 2,000-pound and 500-pound bombs from Israel after the Israel Defense Forces launched a limited campaign near Rafah.

White House officials had for months hinted, largely through leaks to the press, that Washington would not support an Israeli operation in Rafah, where about a million Palestinians displaced from the Strip’s north and center have sought refuge.

Israel, which blasted Biden’s decision, says such an operation is critical to defeating Hamas. A limited operation Israel launched last week, occupying the Gazan side of the Rafah Border Crossing into Egypt, has not yet crossed the president’s “red line,” according to a report on the Axios news site.

US President Joe Biden makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seatac, Washington, on May 11, 2024. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Blinken told CBS that the bomb shipment was the only US weapons package being withheld. However, he warned, if Israel “launches this major military operation to Rafah, then there are certain systems that we’re not going to be supporting and supplying for that operation.” He did not elaborate.

The secretary had on Saturday reported to Congress about Israel’s compliance with international law in its use of US arms during the fighting in Gaza. The report, which was unrelated to the bomb shipment, found no specific violations justifying withholding US military aid from Israel, saying the chaos of war prevented verification of individual alleged breaches.

Hamas’s use of civilian infrastructure and tunnels “makes it very difficult to determine, particularly in the midst of war,” what happened in specific instances, Blinken said, defending the report, which was criticized by some lawmakers from Biden’s Democratic Party and human rights groups.

Nonetheless, the report found that the scope of damage done to civilians in Gaza made it “reasonable to conclude that there were instances when Israel has acted in ways that are not consistent with international humanitarian law,” Blinken told NBC, adding that some harm to civilians could not be avoided since Hamas “intentionally embeds itself among civilians.”

The US investigates each incident “critically,” Blinken said.

“So does Israel,” he added, noting there were “hundreds, as we understand it, of open inquiries, into particular incidents that have taken place since October 7,” including criminal investigations.

Blinken denied in the interview that Washington had double standards when assessing Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the press in front of a truck with humanitarian aid bound for Gaza, at the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization in Amman, Jordan, April 30, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/ AFP)

“We treat Israel, one of our closest allies and partners, just as we would treat any other country,” he said, noting that Israel possessed “both the means and the will” to adjudicate potential violations of international law.

“We have the same objective as Israel,” Blinken told NBC. “We want to make sure that Hamas cannot govern Gaza again. We want to make sure it’s demilitarized. We want to make sure that Israel gets [Hamas’s] leader.”

“We have a better way” of accomplishing that than Israel’s planned Rafah invasion, Blinken argued, without offering specifics, adding that the US had held conversations with Israeli counterparts about such a plan, which Blinken said would aim to achieve “enduring security.”

The US has several times lobbied for more limited pinpoint operations in Rafah, rather than a large-scale assault.

“That’s what allies do. We’re clear-eyed, and we speak the truth to each other,” said Blinken. “That’s the nature of the relationship.”

Asked whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was undermining talks, mediated by the US, to secure a hostage and truce deal between Israel and Hamas, Blinken said that Hamas could have ended the war “from day one” by releasing the hostages and laying down its arms.

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